In Australia, Aboriginal peoples have sought to exploit and challenge settler colonial schooling to meet their own goals and needs, engaging in strategic, diverse and creative ways closely tied to labour markets and the labour movement. Here, we bring together two case studies to illustrate the interplay of negotiation, resistance and compulsion that we argue has characterised Aboriginal engagements with school as a structure within settler colonial capitalism. Our first case study explains how Aboriginal families in Victoria and New South Wales deliberately exploited gaps in school record collecting to maintain mobility during the mid-twentieth century and engaged with labour markets that enabled visits to country. Our second case study explores the Strelley mob’s establishment of independent, Aboriginal-controlled bilingual schools in the 1970s to maintain control of their labour and their futures. Techniques of survival developed in and around schooling have been neglected by historians, yet they demonstrate how schooling has been a strategic political project, both for Aboriginal peoples and the Australian settler colonial state.